Health care subsidies and housing discrimination: Big decisions from SCOTUS as term nears end

The Supreme Court issued two notable decisions today, leaving five remaining for the rest of the term.

King v. Burwell

In a 6-3 decision penned by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court upheld the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act that were being challenged in King v. Burwell. Petitioners had attempted to challenge the subsidies for health insurance purchased through the federal exchange, because language in the statute said that subsidies were available to those who purchased insurance through state exchanges. It was widely thought that a ruling against the subsidies would have dismantled the Act.

While the Court affirmed the 4th Circuit, they declined to utilize the Chevron defense as employed by the lower court, which would have deferred to the IRS in their interpretation of the statute. Instead the Court analyzed the law itself and found support for the subsidies through the context of the statute as a whole. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

The Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

Justice Scalia penned a dissent which was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. Among other legal points, Justice Scalia refers to the Court's interpretation of the statute as "pure applesauce." SCOTUS Blog provides case documents and detailed analysis for the case.

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc

The Court also issued a decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc, finding that disparate impact claims are valid under the Fair Housing Act. The Act makes it illegal to “refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”

While it is clear that this statute bans intentional discrimination in housing, there were questions about whether it also prohibited actions that could have a discriminatory impact without considering the intent of the actor. In a 5-4 decision, written by Justice Kennedy, the Court found that the statute does, in fact, protect against practices that have a disparate impact. The Court cautioned, however, that, "Policies, whether governmental or private, are not contrary to the disparate-impact requirement unless they are 'artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.'"

Justices Thomas and Alito wrote separate dissents. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined in Justice Alito's dissent. SCOTUS Blog provides case documents for the case, here.

Photo credit: Roberts Court (2010-) - The Oyez Project via Wikimedia Commons.